How to get pronouns to agree with their antecedents?

In the previous post on vague pronoun reference, we discussed the role of pronouns in taking the place of nouns that preceded them, which are called their antecedents.

The traditional usage rule for pronoun-antecedent agreement is that pronouns must match their antecedents in gender, person, number, and case.

Gender refers to masculine or feminine; person to the first, second, third; number to singular or plural, and case to whether the pronoun is subjective or objective.

Consider these examples from Tourneau in English Grammar (68):

  1. he: third person, masculine, singular, subjective
  2. him: third person, masculine, singular, objective
  3. she: third person, feminine, singular, subjective

He, him, she, and her are personal pronouns which show by their form whether they mean the person or persons speaking, spoken to, or spoken about. These are the only personal pronouns marked for gender.

Personal pronouns are pronouns that most readily substitute for nouns or noun phrases in a sentence.

A pronoun in the first person is the one a person speaking uses to refer to himself or herself: I, we.

A pronoun in the second person is the one that the person speaking uses to address the person or persons spoken to: you.

A pronoun in the third person indicates the person or persons spoken about: he, she, it, they.

Number refers to whether a pronoun is singular or plural. If a pronoun is singular, the word it refers to must be singular; if a pronoun is plural, the word it refers to must be plural:

*I read the letters and then tossed it in the garbage.

Because the preceding noun letters is plural, the pronoun that follows and refers to letters must be plural. The sentence should read:

I read the letters and then tossed them in the garbage.

(When presenting a sentence that is not grammatically correct, the standard practice is to put an asterisk at the beginning as a signal that the sentence that follows is wrong.)

Case is determined by the way a pronoun is used in a sentence. The change in form of pronouns show their relationship to other words in a sentence; for example, he, him, his.

Subjective case – pronouns used as subjects in a sentence: He wrote the book.

Objective case – pronouns used as objects in a sentence: Give the book to him.

Possessive case – pronouns use to show possession: This is his book.

When we are speaking, we can easily make mistakes in pronoun antecedent agreement since we are usually composing what we are saying as we are speaking. When we are writing, these errors can occur, especially in zero (free writing) or early drafts when we are focused on the content and not the style or polish. Correcting for errors in pronoun antecedent agreement comes during the revision process.

There are some special cases which can cause writers problems with their choice of pronouns. We’ll touch on a few here.

Collective nouns as antecedents

Collective nouns such as family, group, team, crowd, jury, majority, minority – any nouns that names a group of individual members can be treated as either singular or plural, depending on context and meaning.

The jury read its verdict.

In this example the jury is acting as one unit; therefore a singular pronoun is used.

The jury gave their individual opinions.

In this example the jury members are acting as twelve individuals; therefore a plural pronoun is used.

Indefinite pronouns as antecedents

An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun that does not refer to any person, amount or thing in particular. Indefinite pronouns can be singular or plural or both, depending on usage:

Singular: anyone, everyone, someone, anybody, somebody, nobody, each, one, either, neither

Plural: both, few, many, others, several

Singular and plural both (depending on usage): all, any, more, most, some

Singular indefinite pronoun antecedents require singular pronouns, while plural indefinite pronouns require plural pronouns:

Each does a good job in his or her office.

Both do a good job in their office.

Depending on usage, certain indefinite pronouns can be either singular or plural:

Some of this footwear smells because Tom wears it to the barn.

Some of these shoes smell because Tom wears them to the barn.

In the first sentence, the word footwear makes some singular, so it is the pronoun that agrees. In the second sentence, the word shoes is a plural noun, so some becomes plural, too, and them is the appropriate pronoun for agreement. (Examples adapted from Grammar Bytes.)

A Word about the Use of His vs Their with Singular Indefinite Pronoun Antecedents

As we see in the earlier example, a singular pronoun is used to refer to a singular pronoun antecedent: Each does a good job in his or her office.

When the sentence calls for a possessive pronoun, the conventional choice has been the singular masculine pronoun his. Writing his or her can be an attempt to be gender inclusive or neutral (nonsexist) in writing. (Studies have shown that though many writers have claimed that they are using the universal he–or his in the possessive case–most were really referring to males, not females.)

Many have argued for the use of what is called the singular they/their, which would avoid sexist usage and avoid the awkwardness of overusing his or her: Each does a good job in their office.

Most instructor would mark singular their as an error despite the fact that the use of the pronouns they, their, them, themselves to refer to the indefinite pronouns has a long history dating back to the 14th century. Still, Traditional grammar handbooks, especially from the 18th through 20th centuries, are prescriptive, telling what  rules prople should follow, rather describing what people do in actual practice. However, Richard Norquist cites more recent handbooks, like The Copyeditor’s Handbook (Amy Einsohn, U of California P, 2000), that recommend using the plural pronoun after an indefinite pronoun: Everyone took their seat.

However, if this is not an option in the writing you are doing, you can avoid the traditional use of the masculine pronoun or the awkwardness of the his or her construction by rewriting the sentences to use plural nouns and pronouns instead of singular ones.

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